THE state of Veracruz, on the Gulf coast, is Mexico at its most fertile. Along the tropical coastline, vast sugar-cane plantations shimmer in the heat. Climb the mountains towards the balmier state capital of Jalapa and the landscape changes into a canopy of coffee plants and orange trees, with cattle and horses grazing. Mexicans will tell you that this natural bounty is the essence of their country. What many fail to realise, though, is that until 500 years ago none of these crops or animals existed in Mexico. Veracruz was the gateway through which they entered, and it was Spaniards who brought them.
This is where one of the great military expeditions of history began: Hernán Cortés´s march in 1519-20 from the Gulf of Mexico to Tenochtitlán, seat of the Aztec empire. Historians liken it to Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. Its protagonist, a cunning 34-year-old with almost no experience of war, led about 500 men and just over a dozen horses into territories whose bloodthirsty warriors hugely outnumbered his own. He exploited seething tribal rivalries to conquer a civilisation—albeit with the help of gunpowder, smallpox and his wily Indian lover. At times he used mischief; at times cruelty. He had an eye for his place in history—as well as for the ladies. His soldiers did not just subjugate the people they conquered. From the very start they bred with the Indians too, creating a mixed race through mestizaje, with a common language and religion that defines Mexico today.
Today the journey—bits of which your correspondent did by car, bits on horse-back—is rather easier than it was five centuries ago. Even so, it can be tricky. To follow Cortés’s first march from beginning to end requires trampling through jungle, skirting snow-capped volcanoes, traipsing through fields of fighting bulls and battling Mexico City’s traffic. Only a few historians, such as Juan Miralles, a Mexican diplomat, have deciphered the conquistadors’ lousy spelling of Indian names to identify the route. Sometimes history seems to have swallowed Cortés’s footsteps up.
On the march
When Cortés disembarked on the sand-banks of Veracruz on April 22nd (Good Friday) in 1519, after a long journey from Cuba via the Yucatán and Tabasco, he set in train three manoeuvres that would help determine the outcome of the conquest. He met ambassadors of Moctezuma, lord of the Aztecs, and the more gold they gave him as a bribe to stop him travelling to Tenochtitlán, the more they whetted his appetite to go. He double-crossed men loyal to the Cuban governor, Diego Velázquez, to give himself free rein to pursue his path to glory in service of the King of Spain. And he realised the usefulness of Indian allies, above all the alluring Malintzin, or La Malinche, who had been given to him as a slave a few weeks before and whose linguistic skills and womanly wiles helped him penetrate the great Aztec empire by brokering pacts with its enemies.
Today there is no trace of the mosquito-infested dunes where he established the first Villa Rica de la Veracruz, a make-believe town created solely to hold a rigged election that would give him powers to conquer. San Juan de Ulúa is a historic fort near an esplanade where marimba music flutters and elderly men play chess and drink coffee. In a possible echo of the control the Aztecs once exerted, parts of Veracruz look like a police state: heavily armed marines in balaclavas patrol the area to stop drug violence.
Back in 1519 the Aztecs’ rivals, the local Totonac Indians, may have looked as threatening as today’s drug lords. They had, according to one account, drooping holes in their lower lips and ears, studded with stones and gold. But they were friendlier than they looked. Once their overlords, the Aztec ambassadors, had given up their vain attempt to get rid of the Spaniards, the Totonacs invited Cortés and his crew farther up the coast to meet their chieftain, a splendid character who has gone down in history as the “fatcacique” (ruler).
Thanks to his hospitality, Cortés built the second Villa Rica de la Veracruz, with its own imposing fortress. But you would hardly know it now. About 50km (31 miles) north of modern-day Veracruz is Quiahuiztlán, a breathtaking Totonac settlement in a clearing halfway up a jagged mountain overlooking the coast. There Cortés spent many weeks with the fat cacique, trying to convert him to Christianity while gleaning vital information about the Aztecs. Here the Spaniard inspired the sport in which Mexicans continue to excel: tax-dodging. He incited the chieftain to jail some of Moctezuma’s haughty and perfumed tax-collectors, only to secretly free them later so that they would return to their lord and give a favourable account of the stranger’s magnanimity.
This is also where the first seeds of mestizaje may have been sown. The fat cacique gave the Spanish conquistador and his commanders a gift of eight noblewomen in ornate clothing, with gold collars and earrings, to breed with. The gift was not gracefully received, perhaps because Cortés got the ugliest one, the chieftain’s niece. He repaid the favour by throwing down the Totonac idols at the cacique’s feet, saying he and his men could take the women only if they first became Christians. La Malinche may already have become his lover by then. Later she bore his first child.
Beneath Quiahuiztlán is the first Spanish settlement in the Americas. Visitors might expect such a place to be marked, if not celebrated, yet it is almost lost to history. Villa Rica, like most Mexican seaside resorts, is an appealing mixture of thatched palapas (huts) selling fish and beer, and hammocks to sleep off lunch. The presence of a nuclear-power station in the adjacent bay does not diminish its popularity. But few of its visitors know that it is where one of the most remarkable events in Mexican history took place: Cortés’s most famous act of bold, decisive cool. Some of his soldiers, loyal to Velázquez, wanted to return to Cuba. Cortés needed total commitment to his expedition, so he scuttled his ships by smashing holes in them and abandoning them on the beach. From then on, victory was the only option for his troops.
There is nothing in Villa Rica to recall this extraordinary act of leadership, nor to mark the remains of the fortress that Cortés personally helped to build that lies just above the beach. It is now surrounded by barbed wire and hidden under a thicket of brambles. The contrast with meticulously excavated Jamestown, where English settlers first disembarked on the coast of Virginia in 1607, speaks volumes about how differently two neighbour-nations can treat their early history. In America, where the conquerors wiped out most of the past, the place of arrival is celebrated with the pride of victory; in Mexico, where the settlers mixed with the indigenous people, it is regarded as the starting-place of a painful conquest, best ignored. This attitude to Cortés prevails in poor, lethargic areas, strongholds of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that has ruled Mexico for most of the past century, often by peddling to Mexicans a narrative of oppression at the hands of outsiders.
The same attitude can be found in what was to become the third Villa Rica de la Veracruz. It is now La Antigua, a village 20km north of Veracruz. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who along with Cortés provides the best eyewitness account of the conquest, tells of the deep river they struggled to cross there, using broken canoes or by swimming. On the banks, giant ceiba trees take some of the sting from the tropical heat; the Spaniards perhaps remembered these, and within decades of the conquest they made the place a hub of trade between the new world and Spain. But there is little trace of that today. Almost hidden among vast amatetrees in La Antigua is the so-called “Casa de Cortés” (pictured), with roots threaded through its window frames and doors as if it has been asleep for centuries. Though it is unlikely that the conquistador ever lived there, it was built with princely craftsmanship. Faint traces remain of the white stucco that used to adorn it—an old indigenous recipe, a guide says, of cactus, oysters, gulls’ eggs, crushed tortoise shells, sand and water. Restoration work started only four years ago.
The guide, a spiky-haired 19-year-old called Sergio, takes visitors to the main square where he shows off a recently erected plaque that contains the conciliatory message: “We stretch out our hands to our Spanish brethren because we are heirs to the wisdom of the Indians and the gallantry of the Spaniards.” But he is personally scornful of the conquistadors. They were the dregs of society, he says, infested with diseases like smallpox and measles that ravaged the indigenous population. “We’d rather forget the conquest altogether,” he says.
Horses, gods and machismo
Yet in the pine-covered mountains above, a few days’ march away, where Cortés travelled on his way to the central plains of Mexico, people take a different view of these things. This is farming country, populated by conservative and independent-minded smallholders who have little time for the PRI’s spurious “revolutionary” populism. Horse culture, which played an outsized role in the conquest, runs deep. Chroniclers delight in describing how the conquistadors on their horses galloped in front of wide-eyed Indians to make them believe that this strange beast and man were one creature, either a monster or a god.
The Spaniards rode close to what is now Xico, a mountain town that seems to float on the air amid the brightly coloured paper decorations strung along the streets. The Spaniards introduced its most famous crop, coffee. Its centre of gravity is a Catholic church—another Spanish import—whose tower is silhouetted by the snow-covered Pico de Orizaba behind. On one Sunday this summer a small troop of horses trotted up the main street, their riders dressed in embroidered jackets and trousers. The heart and soul of chivalrous Mexico, they displayed another Spanish trait, machismo. One, a 72-year-old farmer in a sombrero with a moustache and hair as silver-grey as his horse, nodded to his young daughter riding at his side. “The chewing gum still sticks,” he guffawed, pointing to his penis. They headed to church for a mounted Sunday mass a week before the town’s annual bull run. “The conquest brought us everything good in life—God, horses and bulls,” says another horseman.
From Xico, the conquistadors flogged through freezing mountain passes and waterless terrain to arrive in Tlaxcala, Mexico’s smallest state. Although it is a quiet haven of colonial architecture, haciendas and bull studs only two hours from the capital, few people visit it. That is partly because its unique role in the conquest tarnished its reputation, partly because it is known now for trafficking girls. Half a millennium on, the curse persists.
Led by a local prince, Xicoténcatl the Younger, the Tlaxcalans almost beat Cortés and his men in battle. They quickly killed two of his horses, destroying the myth of the conquistadors’ invincibility. The wounded Spaniards were forced to treat their injuries with the body fat of a dead Indian, the only ointment they could find. But eventually the Tlaxcalans capitulated—hampered perhaps by their tradition of trying to capture their enemies for sacrifice, rather than slaughtering them.
Cortés was astonished by their city. He thought it “greater and stronger than Granada”; it teemed with fresh game to eat, in the market there were barbers’ shops, and it even had a functioning justice system (modern Mexico, take note). It also provided allies; its people were sworn enemies of the Aztecs and were delighted to join up with the Spaniards. The idea that the conquest is all Cortés’s dirty work is incorrect. “The conquest was a war of Indians against Indians. The Spaniards were far too small a force to do it by themselves,” says Andrea Martínez, a historian and expert on Tlaxcala.
For a few centuries Tlaxcala did well out of its co-conquest. It earned a royal seal from Spain as a “very noble and very loyal” city. According to Ms Martínez, its Indian caciqueswere allowed to retain control of their people and fought tenacious legal battles to stop the imperial authorities from stripping them of their rights. On behalf of the crown, loyal Tlaxcalans helped conquer territory and build settlements from Central America as far north as Albuquerque, New Mexico.
That all changed with independence. Enrique Krauze, a historian, notes that the country’s break from Spain in 1821 was portrayed by liberals as the reversal of the conquest. And the anti-conquest fervour drew further strength from the revolution of 1910-17 that eventually gave rise to PRI rule. As a result, Tlaxcala became a dirty word and schoolchildren were taught that it was a “traitor state”. Now there are few traces of Cortés, and the only Tlaxcalan celebrated nationwide is Xicoténcatl the Younger, who was hanged for failing to support the final siege against the Aztecs. Armando Díaz de la Mora, a state historian, finds it exasperating. “Cortés was a great friend to Tlaxcala,” he says, “[but] there are no squares, streets or statues named after him.”
Your correspondent, conquistador-style, took a day trip on horseback to find traces of the legendary wall on the border of Tlaxcala that kept the Aztec marauders at bay. There is no sign of it. The battlegrounds on which Cortés and his men fought tens of thousands of club-wielding Tlaxcalans are now overrun by fighting bulls. But the landscape still has the beauty that must have captivated Cortés 500 years ago. Above it looms a striking volcano, called La Malinche. Legend has it that when the locals saw Malintzin bathing in a pool, she looked so voluptuous that they named it after her.
Blood, sweat and tears
History takes a different turn with the final leg of Cortés’s first journey: the approach to Tenochtitlán. In the city of Cholula, which was loyal to Moctezuma, Cortés’s Spanish and Tlaxcalan forces massacred thousands in the main square, though accounts differ as to whether it was a pre-emptive strike to fend off an attack or a simple case of bloodlust. The slaughter is one of the biggest blights on Cortés´s memory. Visit Cholula today and it is the ancient pre-hispanic pyramid, buried beneath a church, that draws history buffs, not the conquistador.
The path between the two volcanoes that tower above Cholula is called the Paso de Cortés. It is spectacular. From there he had his first awe-inspiring sight of what is now Mexico City. The lakes that shimmered below him are mostly now drained and cluttered with some of Latin America’s biggest slums, with barely a lick of paint on the houses to brighten them. The causeways—still known as calzadas—that took him across the lakes to greet, kidnap and ultimately destroy Moctezuma are the distant forebears of multi-lane highways now snarled with some of the world’s worst traffic.
Along one of them, the Calzada Mexico-Tacuba, Cortés fled on a rainy night in 1520, pursued by enraged Aztecs avenging the death of their emperor. Many of his panicked followers fell into the surrounding lake, drowning under the weight of their armour and turning the water red with blood. Today, next to the burnt husk of a giantahuehuete tree, with buses spewing their fumes alongside, is a sign saying that Cortés wept there for the fate of his men. The event has passed down in history as la noche triste (the sad night), because it is the moment when the Spaniards came closest to defeat. The sign, however, erected in 2013, takes the Aztec view and calls it la noche victoriosa.
That is a reflection of Mexico’s struggle with its past. Should it accept the historical record, with all its brutality, come to terms with the inevitability of Tenochtitlán’s fall and celebrate the boldness and enterprise of Cortés and his men? Or should it continue to glorify the Aztecs and anguish over the genocide that Cortés perpetrated in God’s name? Should it continue to demonise Cortés, in the words of Octavio Paz, a Nobel prize-winning poet, as a symbol of violent penetration, or learn to appreciate him as the unifier of two cultures? The dilemma is more than historical. “Hatred of Cortés is not even hatred of Spain. It’s hatred of ourselves,” wrote Paz on the 500th anniversary of the conquistador’s birth in 1985.
Some Mexicans are making efforts to reconcile the country to its history. A television magnate, Ricardo Salinas Pliego, is using the rights to Miralles’s history books, which he owns, to produce a TV drama that he hopes will re-shape the story of the country’s birth on its half-millennium. “We’re definitely going to rewrite history,” he says. Cortés, he believes, “was really in love with Mexico”. La Malinche, too, has “been very poorly served by history. She shows what a strong woman can do with history. And she gave birth to the firstmestizo.”
For now, though, the national dilemma lingers. At the journey’s end, the centre of Mexico City, a mural in a stairwell in the baroque sanctuary of San Ildefonso, beside the remains of Tenochtitlán’s dazzling Great Temple, depicts a uniquely Mexican version of Adam and Eve. Painted by José Clemente Orozco, a stern Cortés is clasping the hand of the dark-skinned La Malinche. Both are naked. Beneath their feet is a dead, faceless Indian.
A few streets away, at the site where the conquistador first met Moctezuma, another mural offers a gentler version of the story. Behind the plain façade of the Hospital de Jesús, which Cortés built in 1524 to train Indian doctors, are two porticoed courtyards, with perhaps the only bust of Cortés to be found in a public building in Mexico. Upstairs, a mural depicts Spanish, Indian and mestizo doctors and nurses working side by side. In the next-door church, which is closed for refurbishment, lie Cortés’s bones.